Twist and Shout: The Enduring Legacy of Surprise Reveals

Few cinematic swords are as sharply double-edged as a film famous for having “a big twist.”

While the allure of trying to solve the mystery at hand often pulls in amateur sleuths — and, in turn, respectable numbers at the box office — once the much-touted revelation is known, it has a tendency to spread, reaching ears that would rather go through the experience without having it spoiled.

But whether you’re smugly sitting tight after correctly guessing the secret or are in the midst of picking your jaw off the ground, the matter of the film holding your attention up to the big reveal has proven just as important, despite being largely overshadowed by the twist. With the film’s reputation in place, audiences are looking for clues, so how do filmmakers keep viewers hooked? And when the twist is known, how do you keep savvy moviegoers wanting to revisit the film on a semi-regular basis, thereby earning its reputation as a great film and not just a clever mystery that’s empty the second time around?

The Usual Suspects (out in 4K as of Oct. 25, courtesy of the tight-lipped, trustworthy Kino Lorber), The Sixth Sense, and The Crying Game have all shed their initial gimmick-based statuses and hold up nicely to repeat viewings — and for some of the same reasons.

Daft though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can be, The Usual Suspects scribe Christopher McQuarrie and The Crying Game’s Neil Jordan won Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, and The Sixth Sense’s M. Night Shyamalan was nominated in that category. And it wasn’t like they were honored solely for their respective twists, despite marketing campaigns that weren’t exactly shy about reminding voters of the power of said shock value.

To overcome that potentially limiting reputation, the writer/directors and McQuarrie (in tandem with Usual Suspects helmer Bryan Singer) layer their films with elements that aren’t reliant on such tricks. 

Foremost, all three films hit their respective genre beats in reverential, influential, and inventive fashion. Arguably the foremost ghost story of the past 25 years, The Sixth Sense dishes out its well-timed scares efficiently and sparingly to bolster their effectiveness. The walking corpses that preteen dead-seer Cole (Haley Joel Osment) encounters don’t pop out at him for cheap thrills. Instead, their magnetic draw toward his supernatural gifts yields a more organic presence, and the lingering carnage that Shyamalan and his makeup crew craft result in terrifying imagery far more memorable than a quick “boo” from your run-of-the-mill demon.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary in late November, The Crying Game and its accelerated bond between ex-IRA volunteer Fergus (Stephen Rea) and British hairstylist Dil (Jaye Davidson) is easily one of the great romances of those three decades. The chemistry between the two actors and the secrets their characters harbor combine to form an atypical yet convincing connection on par with far more conventional love connections.

Meanwhile, few modern crime tales are as compelling as The Usual Suspects’ shadily orchestrated assemblage of five veteran cons that leads to a series of increasingly dangerous jobs. In his sophomore feature effort, Singer stages tight, gritty heist scenes with the confidence of someone well into their career, and shepherds career-best performances from an ensemble of top character actors, including Gabriel Byrne, Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollak, Benicio Del Toro, Chazz Palminteri, Pete Postlethwaite, and in one of the mid-’90s roles that vaulted him to a leading man, Kevin Spacey.

The fraught camaraderie between these cops and robbers as they deliver McQuarrie’s sizzling dialogue is a pleasure to return to, and the same goes with the work by Osment, Toni Collette, and Olivia Williams in The Sixth Sense, and Rea, Davidson, Jim Broadbent, Forest “Sure That’s a British Accent?” Whitaker, and Miranda Richardson in The Crying Game. The lone superstar of the bunch is Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, yet as child psychiatrist Malcolm Crowe, he’s granted an opportunity by Shyamalan to show a dramatic depth that had only been hinted at in his previous work. Making good on that trust, Willis gives one of the most nuanced, memorable turns on his rather loud CV.

In their individual permutations, these players form relationships that viewers care about, enacting various degrees of sensationalized (i.e. cinematically worthy) plots that nevertheless involve relatable dynamics. Young outcast Cole sensing a connection with Malcolm that could change both of their lives for the better, or enjoying the brief glee of being speedily pushed through a grocery store parking lot in shopping cart by his beleaguered mother Lynn (Collette); The Usual Suspects’ united quintet tossing out good-natured ribbings; Fergus and his captive British soldier Jody (Whitaker) shedding the man-made limitations of nationalities and seeing each other as simpatico humans — these are intelligently crafted bonds, firmly rooted in reality.

But strong as the writing, filmmaking, and performances are, the power of the twists can’t be ignored, and the build-ups to them remain intriguing. There’s a particular joy in looking for “tells” by characters who are privy to the as-yet-undisclosed information, as well as other clues that the writers and directors weave in — especially Shyamalan.

The extent to which the filmmakers play fair and resist introducing any tricks beyond the well-established rules of each story’s world is similarly impressive, with The Sixth Sense’s meticulous code again leading the way despite its supernatural bent. While there’s a certain suspension of disbelief in all three films regarding uninformed characters who are “fooled” along the way, they’re all sympathetic in their temporary illusions, which makes their plights all the more tragic and, in turn, emotionally rich for us viewers.

Perhaps most importantly, however, none of the films live or die by their twists. Thanks to the above factors, these are simply good, if not great movies that also have one big, unexpected turn that differentiates them from the bulk of their contemporaries. 

While the eleventh hour placement of the epiphanies in The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects significantly alters one’s understanding of the preceding events, an engaging yarn has already been told by that point, transforming the jolt into icing on an already delicious cake.

However, in what seems like an attempt to ward off such labels, Jordan gets The Crying Game’s core surprise out of the way around the film’s halfway mark. The timing doesn’t make the reveal any less shocking — Jordan famously wrote a letter to critics asking them not to spoil it — but considering the placement, it’s as if the filmmaker is intentionally stating that his work won’t be defined by it.

And yet, all three twists are expertly carried out and wholly earn the films’ respective reputations as sleight of hand masterworks, leaving the audience in awe again and again.

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